Thursday, July 9, 2009

Research

Research is possibly one of the most fascinating elements about being an author.

I’m not just talking about the fun side of research for erotic fiction. Obviously it’s satisfying to ask: so how many orgasm can a man have between cups of coffee? (The answer is 9. I’ve checked this twice). Obviously there is a lot of pleasure to be had from discovering answers to questions like: who makes the sandwiches during the intermission of a threeway? (It turns out that the man is expected to do this). Admittedly, the sexual side of research is endless fun. However, moving this topic briefly away from my genitals, I was referring to the more practical elements of research such as location.

Like others have said before me this week, research can be addictive and time-consuming. I’m a voracious reader and so I can spend too many hours (when I should be writing) happily reading about the place where my story is set. A part of me wants to believe that this is necessary research, and I’m absorbing the atmosphere of the story world through some sort of textual osmosis. However, whilst it’s possible that may be true, I always feel as though I’m really just goofing off.

Is this sort of research necessary? That depends on the writer and their intended reader.

I recently read the first 40 pages of J Carrell’s The Shakespeare Secret. This is not an erotic novel. On the back cover blurb it mentions a ‘deadly serial killer’ which had me wondering what other sorts of serial killer there were besides deadly ones. Cuddly serial killers? Jovial serial killers?

The opening of The Shakespeare Secret is set in London. I don’t know if it goes to a different location after that opening. I lost interest in those first 40 pages and couldn’t be bothered to read the rest. The book itself is not badly written, but the research is so intrusive it repeatedly detracts from the story. There are stretches of description that are little more than a list of street names. I don’t doubt that they’re the correct street names for that part of London and the journey that the protagonist is following. I’m sure J Carrell has researched this route thoroughly. But street names add sod all to a story and a list of them only ever belongs at the bottom of a map, followed by an appropriate reference number.

In contrast, I’ve read works that the legendary Lisabet Sarai has placed in Bangok and the UK. Lisabet includes description as a natural part of the story and so it never comes across as a forced list of street names or a glossary of important monuments/locations from a second-hand tourist guide book.

Perhaps the lesson to be taken from this is that it’s not about how much a writer researches but how cleverly they use it to colour the story world they create?

In my own work I seldom use specific locations. However, when I do, the research is always as thorough as my budget will allow.

For my trilogy of vampire stories I made the mistake of writing a proposal that said the stories were set in Rome, Paris and London. This meant I had to learn a lot about three cities that I’d never visited.

Visiting all of the cities was never an option. I’m a writer and some days I don’t have the bus fare to get out of bed. However, with a reliable internet connection and a handful of travel brochures I was able to find out more about the location of my stories. I then spoke to friends who had visited the three cities and asked them about the places. It is possibly the first time in my life I have ever said to someone, “Please could I see your holiday photographs?” Unless another research project comes up, it will certainly be the last time I utter those fateful words.

Was this second-hand information useful?

I spoke to one friend who told me about the Rome he had visited. He said the most remarkable thing he remembered from his holiday was the tangibility of the ancient artefacts. There were crumbling pieces of masonry, and the remnants of fallen pillars, standing by the sides of roads on the city’s outskirts.

Here, in the UK, we’re more used to such pieces of ancient heritage being in museums and locked out of reach. But my Rome-visiting friend explained that these were pieces of history that could be touched as you walked in the Mediterranean sun. It was a piece of background detail that gave me an overwhelming sense of the city’s history.

Another colleague told me that the thing she most remembered about Rome was the puzzle of the one-wheeled bicycles. On every street corner she visited, there were bicycles: chained to the walls but with their front wheels missing. It was a puzzle that perplexed her for the first week of a fortnight stay in the city.

Eventually, she discovered the cause of this peculiar phenomena. To keep their bicycles secure, it was popular during my friend's visit for cyclists to chain the cycle frames to appropriate fixtures but remove the front wheel.

Was this useful to my story? It’s neither erotic not a useable detail that could colour the plot. However, it added to the sense of strangeness I was wanting to develop – the sense of my characters being in a foreign and unfamiliar land. In that regard, I couldn’t think of anything more strange than to wander around a city of one-wheeled bicycles where anyone can lay their hand on a piece of ancient history.

All of which is my way of saying that research – whether it’s reading, surfing, making sandwiches at a threeway, or simply talking to friends – is an essential part of creating a credible story.

11 comments:

  1. Great post, Ashley. I did not know that about the sandwiches, LOL

    I think the bicycle info. is valuable information to color a plot. It's just those small details that would make a reader who's been there go, "Ah, yes. I remember that!"

    Have a great week!

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  2. Hi Jenna,

    I was very surprised to discover that interesting fact about the sandwich making at 3ways, although it has come in useful for adding realistic colour to stories.

    And I like using other people for research (in the context of bikes and Rome) because it gives me a way of glimpsing things that I wouldn't ordinarily have seen.

    Best wishes,

    Ashley

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  3. Hmm, and if there are 2 men and a woman in this three way? Trust a man to think f/m/f automatically. Sheesh!

    Your comments on the over use of information is wonderful. I call this the laundry list and should be avoided at all costs. It's like when a character walks into a room and the author goes into way too much detail about what's there. Who really cares about the half dozen coffee tables covered with sweets and hydrangea flowers? Well, other than a florist with a sweet tooth I suppose. The same is true of location, or any other information we gather.

    Great post, Ash, and some really useful info.

    Hugs

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  4. Hi Jude,

    2 men and a woman in a 3way? What an interesting imagination you have! But I can't ever imagine such a peculiar thing happening.

    I'm just teasing. Thanks for pointing out that I'm a sexist pig ;-)

    Best wishes,

    Ashley

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  5. An erotica-author friend of mine says that on some occasions he's been asked *when* he lived in such-and-such a place, based on the story and the small but scene-painting detail he'll drop in - stuuf like knowing that the corner store is a couple of hundred yards up the street from the restaurant, and correctly naming it all, and knowing that the floor of the entrance hall in the hotel is marble. He says he gets a real 'buzz' from that, knowing that he's never actually visited - but he'll make phone calls, check online, and talk to people. It *does* add to the atmosphere.

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  6. Hi Steve,

    That's just what such details are for: scene-painting. I think that buzz must be the opposite reaction to the one I get when a reader points out my blatant errors with geography and other elements of location.

    Best wishes,

    Ashley

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  7. This is exactly the problem with research, what details to use and how and when to use it. When you put so much effort into research, it's hard to not use those precious facts, but if all you get out of research is an info dump that kills the momentum of the story, then what's the point?

    Good point and a great example of how research impacts a story, for better or worse.

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  8. Hi Helen,

    I'm always of the belief that the more you know about a subject, the more choice you have about what to mention and what not to mention.

    However, as you say, there's so much effort goes into the process of finding out that sometimes it's not to use every one of those hard-found facts.

    Best,

    Ashley

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  9. Hi, Ash,

    I've never thought of myself as "legendary" LOL! However, I'm very flattered that you think my stories set in the UK are as convincing as those set in Bangkok, given that I've only been in the UK briefly a couple of times, whereas I know Bangkok quite well. Of course, you've actually helped with Briticisms (is that a word) on a few occasions - many thanks!

    I heartily agree with your comments about what Jude calls "the laundry list". That really puts me off. In fact the sense of a place, conveyed by a few cunning details, is far more important than the street names.

    As for the sandwiches question - why would anyone want to eat sandwiches after participating in one?!

    Hugs,
    Lisabet

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  10. I love research.
    One of the reasons I love writing historicals!
    Lovely post!

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  11. Lisabet: one of the things that makes you legendary is that you don't think of yourself that way.

    Jeanne: I started reasearching a historical eight years ago. I haven't written it yet. I'm still immersed in all the rich, rewarding research.

    Best wishes,

    Ashley

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